If Everyone Has Something to Hide, Then It’s Not Surveillance that is the Problem

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution recently wrote a post called No One is Innocent:

“I broke the law yesterday and again today and I will probably break the law tomorrow. Don’t mistake me, I have done nothing wrong. I don’t even know what laws I have broken. Nevertheless, I am reasonably confident that I have broken some laws, rules, or regulations recently because its hard for anyone to live today without breaking the law. Doubt me? Have you ever thrown out some junk mail that came to your house but was addressed to someone else? That’s a violation of federal law punishable by up to 5 years in prison…

“One of the responses to the revelations about the mass spying on Americans by the NSA and other agencies is “I have nothing to hide. What me worry?” I tweeted in response “If you have nothing to hide, you live a boring life.” More fundamentally, the NSA spying machine has reduced the cost of evidence so that today our freedom–or our independence–is to a large extent at the discretion of those in control of the panopticon…”

All good points. Government surveillance now has the ability to find dirt on everyone. However, it is not necessarily surveillance that is the problem in this scenario. Rather, isn’t it bad laws that are at fault? If we are all by definition criminals, something is wrong with our legal structure. Surveillance just exposes what has always been a big problem. As we move into a world with less privacy, we are going to need fewer and more lenient laws, or else society will grind to a halt.

Imagine every person who used illegal drugs, broke a traffic rule, or violated copyright was immediately caught and punished. I’m guessing that in a matter of days at least half the American public would end up on the wrong side of the law. That’s because these laws are poorly designed. They always have been.

The same principle holds true when talking about cultural norms. If surveillance technologies are used to out a closeted homosexual against his will, then what is to blame? Is it the surveillance technologies? Or is it the screwed up culture that demonizes gays and forces them to hide in the first place?

I believe that more than anything else, a society with less privacy is going to have to become more relaxed. Most likely we’ll end up more tolerant of drug use, atypical sexual behavior, and minor rules infractions. And in many ways that might be a very good thing.

2 thoughts on “If Everyone Has Something to Hide, Then It’s Not Surveillance that is the Problem

  1. Yeah, I totally agree. We’re going to have to radically decrease the number of stupid things that are illegal but shouldn’t be (that’s a good idea anyway, considering the absurdly high percentage of people that are in prison in the US), and we’re also going to have to create a more tolerant society in general.

  2. Here in the Dominican Republic, they have all those same stupid laws, but they just severely under-fund the police and the jail system. So incarceration capacity is limited and only the worst offenses are prosecuted. Maybe limiting prosecution supply can work (not that it works all that well for the D.R.!)